by Nicole Wolverton
New York City has a reputation. People expect it to be big and fast-paced and extraordinary and dangerous. All the things that perhaps their real lives, the lives of suburbanites and people who live in small towns, are not. The first time I set foot in New York I was a junior in high school, off on a school trip. My friends and I escaped the supervised circuit of touristy areas and set out to see the things really worth seeing (to a 14-year-old, anyway). It was everything that I, someone from a rural backwater, wanted it to be—gritty and unsafe and a million miles away from what I knew. It was magic: a perfect day, escaping who I was, seeing for the first time the person I could be in a town where the possibilities were endless.
That day was recalled with perfect clarity for me when I read Cari Luna’s debut novel The Revolution of Every Day (Tin House, November 2013). According to Luna, Revolution is a love letter to New York City, circa early 1990s—not long after I fell in love with it. But let’s not romanticize things—New York at the time was floundering in many ways. Drugs and crime were rampant, and the city could be a dangerous place. Many people genuinely wanted to reclaim the city, though, make it livable and vibrant with culture.
Enter the homesteading movement, which blossomed in less desirable neighborhoods that had been left for dead. It is a group of these homesteaders, or squatters—on the Lower East Side—determined to keep what they‘ve built, what they’ve improved, that Luna writes about in Revolution.
The title of Luna’s novel is an homage to The Revolution of Everyday Life, a book on consumerism’s impact on modern life by Raoul Vaneigem. This impact—including the disinvestment on the Lower East Side that led to so many buildings being abandoned—plays out in the lives of the homesteaders living in Thirteen House and Cat House, particularly as gentrification threatens them. Gerrit (an immigrant from Amsterdam) and Steve (who grew up in the neighborhood), leaders of Thirteen House, are intent on rehabbing the homes they’ve been squatting in—making repairs according to code and making the place livable in order to stop the houses from being condemned and taken over again by the city. New York City ended its homesteading program, whereby squatters could gain property titles and money for building rehabilitation, in 1986, a few years prior to the events of the novel. Real estate prices in the neighborhood had increased, making the land these buildings sat on very valuable indeed.
Revolution is a novel of politics and power at the city level, certainly, but it is also very much a story about the personal lives of those living in Thirteen House and Cat House. Those personal lives reflect the larger themes of home versus community, power and powerlessness, and how lives are impacted by political and economic forces. Told from multiple points of view, Revolution revolves around the pregnancy of a character named Amelia. Amelia is a former heroin addict and a runaway who now shares an apartment and a quasi-romantic relationship with Gerrit. The baby, however, is Steve’s, Thirteen House’s other leader. And Steve and his wife Anne, a school teacher, have been plagued by miscarriage after miscarriage, which puts a strain on their marriage. Anne also has one foot in the more traditional world as a teacher, which leaves her straddling the counter-culture environment of Thirteen House and the more secure environment of her career—and that also causes friction.
Each character’s narration takes over from the last: first Amelia feeling the burden of being grateful to Gerrit for rescuing her from the street, the guilt of sleeping with Steve under his wife’s nose, the panic of how she’s going to tell Gerrit and Steve and how that might impact the status quo; followed by Steve cooking dinner with Anne, worrying about why she’s so distant and arguing with her about an invitation to her mother’s and a “normal Christmas”; and moving to Gerrit’s recollections of how he saved Amelia from the street, and his desire to rescue her again by claiming the baby as his own. The dynamics among them are thus complicated, made more so when Anne adds her anxious point-of-view.
And then there’s Cat, who, at the age of 41, represents the old New York. As unwilling leader of Cat House, Cat is a Janis Joplin-esque street legend, famous for who she knew back in the day. A former addict herself, she’s tired of people looking to her for the answers:
Cat never wanted to be a leader, didn’t ask for it. She played no part in the building coming to be called Cat House. In the beginning they just called the house Five-Three-Nine, but her reputation being what it is, everyone in the neighborhood got into the habit of referring to it as Cat’s house, and it stuck. She hates the name. It’s like the weight of the place hung on her. . . . She’s had enough of the noise and the drama. She just wants to come and go without anyone bothering her.
Add to all that drama the city’s deciding to have all residents of the squats removed from their homes, and there’s a set up for persistent tension in the Houses.
The external crisis mimics the internal crises, and so we see, from Gerrit’s point of view, how his way of facing the coming eviction mirrors the novel’s main characters’ lack of agency in solving their own problems:
This is how history happens in America—desperate people crowded into a musty basement, ready to give themselves over to a lawyer who’s supposed to be their savior. In Amsterdam, when they heard the police were coming they barred the doors and took to the rooftops. They stockpiled bricks and stones. They prepared to fight. Here they talk and wring their hands, hoping pieces of paper will save them. Gerrit can smell the fear coming off them all, the smell of fear and paper.
It is that smell of fear that consumes all the characters in The Revolution of Every Day, even down to the end of the novel when the world the characters have built caves in.
Luna’s own history is a crucial part of her journey in writing The Revolution of Every Day, and it plays into her characters’ viewpoints. Revolution was published when she turned forty, although she began writing it in 2005. In an interview for this feature, she said:
I suppose I’m middle-aged now. With any luck, I’ll keep getting older. I would like to get to be quite old. Beyond that? I don’t know . . . I don’t give my age all that much thought. Cat had a rough go of it, and that left her weary and cynical at 41, but I don’t see that as a function of aging, but rather of too much hard experience. You can be rundown and done at twenty, or you can just be getting started at fifty, or anywhere along that continuum.
As a writer with experience beyond her twenties and thirties, and one with a family, Luna runs a series of interviews on her own website that focus on writers with children. “Writer, with kids” covers the struggle to find a balance between being a parent and being an artist, something many seasoned writers find challenging.
Parent or not, late bloomer or not, Luna’s successful debut novel was preceded by decades of work on her craft: she has an MFA from Brooklyn College, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Jacobin, The Rumpus, PANK, Avery Anthology, failbetter, Novembre Magazine, among others. Experience is earned, and Luna’s led her to Revolution.
The issue of gentrification looms large in Revolution, threatening change in the novel, just as it—in reality—has created a far different New York City. Luna grew up in a New York that was in flux. In an interview with novelist and publisher Laura Stanfill, Luna spoke about what sparked the idea of her story:
I was happy to be pregnant, but it hadn’t been planned, and so as I started writing the novel I was still trying to get my head around what it meant to be someone’s mother. That led me to thinking about New York City, where my husband and I were born and where we were living at that time. I thought about what it was going to be like to raise a child there, and how much it had changed since my husband and I were children. I wanted to understand why and how my city had changed, and the most obvious answer was gentrification.
Luna is not the only one considering how gentrification impacts the city. Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, a blog that chronicles all the unique things in NYC that go by the wayside each year in favor of expensive high-rise housing and chain stores and restaurants, has been around since 2007, but it’s only recently, perhaps the last year or two, that the media has truly caught up to what Luna, Jeremiah Moss (the purveyor the Vanishing New York), and others who love the city have been contemplating for some time. The New York Times offered an article about the pros and cons of gentrification just last year. New York Magazine gleefully covered Spike Lee’s rant about gentrification in Brooklyn. The New York Post is reporting about it, too, and its influence on juries. Perhaps Luna knew what was coming when she and her family moved away from New York and settled in Portland, Oregon. After all, it’s heartbreaking to see a city you love constantly changing . . . and maybe not for the better.
The Revolution of Every Day captures that heart break, not only by chronicling the demise of Thirteen House and Cat House, but of the relationships that make harmony within the houses possible. In the epilogue, Luna writes, “We who see your jagged-tooth skyline rise up and want to weep because we are so full of you. We mourn for you, New York, because you are forgetting us, your brash and ragged children.”
Homepage photo via Wikipedia
notebook photo credit: Xquisite’s via photopin cc
Nicole Woverton’s previous features: Science for the Masses: Mary Roach Reports, Bee Ridgway: Finding The River
Pingback: In the Media: 25th January & 1st February 2015 | The Writes of Woman